In yesterday’s post, “When Less Really Is More,” I stated that my next post would be on focused practice. I already established that without consistent practice no one in sports or any other activity will improve beyond their current level. I found, through a lot of trial and error, that consistent practice is not enough. It must be combined with focused practice to break off whatever plateau you are currently on.
Going back to the jiu-jitsu analogy from my earlier post, I used to train like a madman. While I got better it was at a very incremental rate and I was still getting tapped by the same moves class after class. Enter Uncle Craig. Uncle Craig is not really my uncle, but he was a great role model for a young teenager. He was also extremely analytical, which is no coincidence that he worked as an Industrial Organizational Psychologist. He came to Tiger Academy after I had been training for three years and quickly moved up the belt rankings. He became the dominate jiu-jitsu practitioner whenever we rolled (the jiu-jitsu word for wrestle), and I was more than a little stunned that he moved from getting tapped by me to regularly beating me with innovative wrist and leg locks.
Here I was, seventeen years old, getting beat by a guy almost in his thirties who started training much later than I did. How the heck was he beating me? Why was he so darn good? Simple – he had a plan for every class and every roll.
Craig carried around a ubiquitous notebook to every class and made notes whenever our lead instructor went over a move. He moved around so he could better see the instructor demonstrating a very tiny, but crucial detail to a submission’s success, and he kept track of every time he got tapped or tapped someone else. He also noted what submissions he tapped someone with and the ones that he was most susceptible to. When he got home he would enter his notes into a computer program that he designed which tracked what he was doing well at and what needed the most work. I trained with Craig for almost two and a half years and I never saw him without his notebook.
It took me until 2010 to fully apply Craig’s data entry method, but instead of jiu-jitsu I put it towards improving as a lacrosse official. Every lacrosse official I work with will tell you that I am rarely far away from my brown leather three-ring binder. This binder holds a printout of the current season’s NFHS and NCAA rules for easy reading, a laminated sheet of every GLOA official’s contact information, and, most importantly, a lot of notebook paper.
I write down self-evaluations constantly because I do not have the benefit of practice like players or jiu-jitsu practitioners. Officials train themselves in the classroom and then prove themselves on the field, but until virtual reality simulations are developed for sports officials the best way we have to practice is constantly marking how we are doing.
Since I can’t practice calling a game like a player would practice shooting, I use every game to practice one or two things at a time. Typically I focus on a mechanic that I didn’t get quite right in my earlier game which I wrote down in my “needs work” section on my three-ring binder. For example, whenever a lacrosse official throws his flag he is supposed to yell, “Flag down!” This informs everyone who may not have seen the flag that there is a flag. Every few games I get a little lax about yelling “flag down,” so I note it down and make it a priority for me to do the next game. Predictably, the more I make it a priority the less I forget to yell it.
I don’t write down just my mistakes or omissions either. It is critically important to keep track of what I did well and what my state of mind was during the game. If I had a poor game, my notes are not absent a reason for that poor game. I might have been sick, had a rough day at work or a personal issue that was sticking in my mind. Keeping track of how you feel during whatever activity you are trying to improve on is a huge data point that often goes missed. Let’s face it we all have bad days, so it is important to keep them in mind when looking at a game with a lot of negative marks in it.
That is how I practice my officiating and how I made it deeper into the postseason every year since my second year. I don’t just practice, I practice with purpose.
Lacrosse players, violinists, computer programmers, and virtually every other skilled activity or job can be improved on with consistent, focused practice. Here are a few ways that a youth lacrosse player can track himself and work his way to a new plateau of ability:
- Write down exactly what you want to accomplish each practice session
- Not – pick up ground balls better, but – “I plan on bending my legs more on every ground ball in practice today and keeping my stick almost parallel to the ground.”
- Set attainable goals
- Not – I’m going to do 100 wall ball repetitions as fast as I can, but – “I plan on doing twenty wall ball repetitions with my left and right hand as perfectly as I can and as fast as I can with good form.”
- Write down everything
- Not – I was terrible at shooting today, but – “I had a really bad day at school and I didn’t pay attention well in my shooting drills. Tomorrow I will try to pay attention better by putting everything but shooting out of my mind.”
- Get composition notebooks
- If you don’t want to shell out money for a brown leather three-ring binder I highly suggest multiple composition notebooks. Different colors for different skills that you are working on.
- Don’t focus on at least one practice session
- I don’t mean go mess around during practice, but it is good for the mind to take a break from regimented practice. Go try out a new stick trick, or an unorthodox face-off move. You may never use it during a game, but an unfocused and relaxed practice will be a good reward for a week’s worth of focused, planned practice.
There is no substitute for consistent, focused practice. Develop a plan that works for you, but above all have a plan!